Moon unites 28,000 couples at $70 each

Church seeks legitimacy in stadium wedding rites

New York Times/November 30, 1997

By Alice Ann Love

WASHINGTON -- Hanako Ikeno didn't think it was strange to pledge herself in marriage yesterday to a foreign man she's known just a day in a football-field ceremony surrounded by 28,000 couples.

More than 20 years ago, her mother and father's marriage also was arranged by the Rev. and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon, founders of the Unification Church.

"I'm thankful that God could pick my spouse. I trust him more than anybody else," said Ikeno, 19, who grew up in Milwaukee.

The Moons picked Keichi Kaneko, 19, of Japan, to be her husband.

As the couple took vows yesterday in preparation for their marriage, her parents watched from the stands of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium and renewed their own wedding promises.

In all, 28,000 couples -- 2,500 newly matched and the rest long married -- paid $70 each to take part in yesterday's marriage affirmation ceremony sponsored by the Unification Church, which believes cross-cultural matchmaking will help unite the world.

The official weddings come later in separate legal ceremonies.

"We want to create God-centered families that will serve as examples of true love," said Moon, who refers to himself and his wife as the "true parents" of mankind, sent to finish Jesus Christ's work.

Ranks of new brides and grooms in long white dresses and dark suits took up two-thirds of the football field once used by the Washington Redskins. They were sprinkled with holy water, took vows to be married and raise families in the church, and exchanged rings under a gray November sky.

After the morning ceremony presided over by the Moons, the couples shared box lunches and small slices of wedding cake.

Married couples renewing their vows did not have to belong to the Unification Church, and organizers promoted the event -- called Blessing '97 -- as a nondenominational celebration of marriage and family.

Leaders of six major religions attended, including Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan.

The church says the purpose of the event is to unite families and hasten "the emergence of a new world culture based on God's love."

Religion scholars who have studied the Unification Church see the event as both another step in the movement's ongoing quest for legitimacy and a spiritual gathering whose true religious significance is apparent only to church members.

"They're searching for respectability and to be a part of the Christian community," said Hugh Whitt, a sociologist of religion at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

"What they're saying is: We want to have a position in the mainstream; we aren't that different. And in some ways they aren't, except that part of their message is really offensive to some Christians."

Moon, 77, has declared that both he and his wife, Hak Ja Han Moon, 53, are the "Messiah" and "True Parents of all humanity."

According to the church's "Divine Principle," Jesus failed to restore human beings to their position as God's "perfect children" because he was crucified before he could marry. Moon teaches that his mission is to finish Jesus' work by linking married couples and their families to God through him.

"The blessing is the primary sacrament," said David Bromley, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-author of a book on the church, "so for Moon to marry people who are already married, even if it is symbolic, is for church members absolutely cosmic in its implications."

Yesterday's event "isn't just a publicity stunt," he said. "It is absolutely at the core of who they are and what they're about."

Blessing '97 followed a week of festivities billed by the Unification Church as "World Culture and Sports Festival III," a title that may have confused some invited to take part.

Whitney Houston, who had top-billing in a concert for a reported $1 million salary following yesterday's blessing ceremony, canceled at the last minute, citing illness.

About a dozen pickets protested the event by the Unification Church, which has a multibillion-dollar international business empire abroad and in the United States that includes ownership of the conservative Washington Times newspaper in the nation's capital and Bridgeport University in Connecticut.

"I feel sorry for the people in there," said John Stacey, 23, a former church member who came from New Jersey to criticize the church many believe is a cult.

Yesterday's ceremony was broadcast live via satellite and will ultimately be shared by 39.6 million couples in 54 countries -- church officials said.

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